National Champions 2016/17 – Men Part 4: Balkans
Part four of the six-part series on national champions of the 2016/17 season focuses on the Balkan region, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, FYR Macedonia, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Romania.
Vojvodina mark half decade of dominance
The Novi Sad-based club showed exceptional quality and class to retain the Serbian title for the fifth year in a row. Vojvodina have now won five league trophies in five years, and in 2017 celebrated this true milestone achievement.
The league play-offs were settled as early as the second round, with an away draw against vice-champions Crvena Zvezda the turning point that allowed Vojvodina to reduce the championship race to a mere stroll in the park.
With Vojvodina perfectly consistent and no challengers able to put a strong claim on the title, coach Bozo Rudic gave a host of his talented youngsters a chance to gain valuable playing time, which did little to upset their historic sixth Serbian championship trophy.
Golden jubilee for Zagreb
Hardly any teams have shown the kind of dominance Zagreb have in the last 25 years. Despite a turbulent season with little success in the SEHA and VELUX EHF Champions League, Zagreb fought their way to a remarkable 50th domestic trophy (with 26 league and 24 cup titles won).
2017’s victory also means Zagreb have defended the Croatian league trophy each and every year since its introduction in the 1991/92 season.
Interestingly, Zagreb also made three coaching changes during the season.
Veselin Vujovic was replaced by Silvio Ivandija, who led the squad throughout the better part of 2016/17. However, Ivandija’s time with Zagreb was reduced to a stint in favour of seasoned Bosnian tactician Kasim Kamenica, who finished the season with the team.
Next season will also see a big change for Zagreb as several players will leave – most notably, one of clubs most loyal, Ivan Stevanovic. Meanwhile, Damir Bicanic, Josip Bozic Pavletic and Urh Kastelic will join the team, along with returnee Sandro Obranovic and the club’s intake of the first team-ready youth.
Borac return title to Banja Luka
After failing to impress last season, the second most successful domestic side in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s history were true to their name – which translates directly to ‘fighter’ – in 2016/17.
Under the inspiring tactical guidance of former Serbia international Ratko Djurkovic, Borac Banja Luka reclaimed the trophy they previously held for three seasons in a row.
Unlike the previous season however, Djurkovic’s men were not the main contenders for the title. Ahead of the play-offs, Vogosca and the now dethroned champions Izvidac were poised to battle for the trophy.
The title itself was decided with a tight margin. With all three top contenders square with nine points each at the end of the play-offs, Borac’s attacking prowess paid dividends and brought the fourth domestic title to Banja Luka.
Brave Partizan celebrate maiden title
The incisive Tivat-based side took this season’s Montenegrin championship spotlight from the likes of Budvanska rivijera and runners-up Lovcen.
Partizan were poised to win the big prize from as early as the second round of the play-offs, when they defeated Budvanska rivijera 30:27.
The most successful domestic side, Lovcen, found some consolation for losing the league title in the form of their eighth Cup triumph, as they eliminated Partizan in the semi-finals of that competition.
Partizan owe much of their success to sharpshooter Djordjo Perunicic. The 24-year-old left back and occasional Montenegro national team member played a pivotal role in Partizan’s historic first league title, as he dominated the scoring race with authority for two seasons straight.
Dinamo Bucuresti defend the trophy
After a rollercoaster year with a lot of drama, Bucuresti celebrated their second consecutive title. The ‘Red Dogs’ won the regular season after a consistent performance, with six points more than second-placed side, AHC Potaissa Turda.
The final saw a replay of last year’s ultimate match, with Dinamo facing CSM Bucuresti – and it lived up to all expectations with 120 minutes of sheer drama.
Dinamo won the first leg 27:26 with a goal scored in the last second. The second leg was even more balanced as it ended in a draw, with Dinamo snatching the win after a penalty shoot-out to claim their second title in a row.
Four titles in one season for VELUX EHF Champions League winners Vardar
When the freshly-crowned VELUX EHF Champions League winners joined the Macedonian championship in the play-offs in April, they were defeated 29:26 by their biggest rival Metalurg.
However, Raul Gonzales’ squad had an easy task in all seven matches that followed, recording only victories from that point on.
Although Vardar and Metalurg had same number of points at the end of the championship, Vardar lifted their 17th trophy won in the Macedonian league thanks to a better goal difference.
In addition to the domestic championship title, Vardar won the Macedonian Cup and the SEHA League, and were awarded with the ‘Medal of Merit for Macedonia’ for their Champions League success.
“Lokomotiv” Varna return to the throne
HC “Lokomotiv” Varna dominated the Bulgarian championship from 2000 to 2008, and were close to the title again last year before finishing as silver medallists. But 2017 saw the end of a nine-year wait to reclaim the crown.
During the regular season, Lokomotiv were unstoppable and finished without a single defeat in 18 matches. After winning the semi-finals against Pirin (Goce Delcev) 31:28 and 28:19, they added two more victories in the final against Dobrudzha (31:20, 26:16) and confirmed their year of domination in Bulgaria.
The team led by Nikola Karastoyanov also won their third consecutive title in the Bulgarian Cup in March.
BESA Famiglia continue series of domination
With 32 victories, of which 28 were recorded in the regular season, BESA Famiglia claimed their fourth consecutive championship title.
Just as in the previous season, the team were simply unstoppable, and continued with victories against Kastrioti (37:30) and KH Trepca (30:24) in the play-off finals.
BESA Famiglia are the most successful team in Kosovo and have claimed 11 titles in the domestic championship to date. In 2017, they also had an easy task lifting the trophy in the Kosovan Cup.